CENTRE WELLINGTON – At Centre Wellington’s first meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic, council has approved a bylaw that gives CAO Andy Goldie “emergency and extraordinary powers.”
According to a report to council, this move follows other municipalities such as Guelph and St. Catharines who have also delegated emergency authority to their CAOs.
The report by SV Law solicitor Kevin Thompson says the bylaw is meant to allow Goldie to be able to attend to day-to-day functioning and urgent matters requiring decision making.
“Essentially the bylaw that has been proposed is an extraordinary delegation bylaw to give the CAO powers that he wouldn’t normally have during the period of the state of emergency at the local level,” Thompson said to council.
Thompson explained this will be useful if technological problems don’t allow for council to meet quorum. Thompson said it is important to note that there are things that can’t be delegated to the CAO under the municipal act such as the power to appoint or remove an officer of the municipality or the power to pass bylaws dealing with taxation.
Councillor Bob Foster spoke against the bylaw and questioned why council couldn’t meet electronically more often instead.
In a follow-up phone call, Foster explained the province’s emergency management act was passed 30 years ago when delegating to the CAO would be necessary.
“We now have the ability to meet electronically and we have the means to meet, we all have cell phones and computers,” Foster said. “We have those things and we could meet so we ought to be meeting so that we can provide oversight and represent the public.”
Foster put forward a motion that Centre Wellington council should meet electronically each Monday and at the call of the chair, and to revisit the 2020 budget in light of revenue loss the town may face in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayor Kelly Linton declared this motion to be out of order. Councillor Stephen Kitras agreed with Foster’s reservations about granting the CAO powers and also said he felt council should meet more often.
“I strongly believe this is the time to show the citizens who elected us that democracy works well and better than autocracy,” Kitras said to council before he also put forward a motion to have council meet on a weekly basis.
Linton again declared this to be out of order. In an email, the mayor explained he did this because these topics were not on the agenda and not relevant to the discussion.
“Members of council and staff were provided no opportunity to prepare for these motions and the public was given no notice of them,” Linton said in an email. “Experienced councillors should know better than this.”
Foster disputed this and said the action was appropriate.
“It’s perfectly legitimate and within order to speak to an item that’s already on the agenda and to make a motion about an item that is on the agenda,” Foster said in a follow-up interview. “I spoke very clearly that rather than delegating our authority, which was our agenda item in question, we ought to meet more frequently.”
Linton said by email these motions showed no consideration towards township staff who are already under immense pressure during the state of emergency.
“In addition to not following appropriate protocol, these motions requesting weekly council meetings reflect a complete lack of understanding of how important it is to let our CAO and our senior township team do their job.”
Councillor Neil Dunsmore defended the bylaw as a quick way for decision making and trusted Goldie to act appropriately on the townships behalf if necessary.
“It’s an emergency, you don’t gather first responders on the front lawn and have a discussion before you run into an emergency,” Dunsmore said in council. “We have to give him the authority to pivot in a crisis, we haven’t seen the burnt of this yet, it is still coming and we’re going to have to make decisions on the fly.”
Councillor Ian MacRae was also in favour of the bylaw and shared a time when all communication went down at his house for a few days as an example of when electronic participation would not be possible.
“Our senior staff have been trained to prepare for this sort of crisis,” MacRae said in council. “We need to step aside and let the experts focus on this.”
The bylaw was passed by a vote of 4-3 with councillors MacRae, Dunsmore, Steven VanLeeuwan and Mayor Linton voting in favour. Councillor Kirk McElwain voted against with Kitras and Foster.
Foster expressed his disappointment in this outcome and feels strongly that council should meet more often.
“The province gave us the right to meet electronically and we should be doing our job as a council by meeting weekly and providing leadership and oversight during the COVID crisis,” Foster said in a follow-up phone call. “Instead we’re giving the CAO a blank cheque to spend the 2020 budget with no council oversight and having no regard for the lost revenue in 2020. That’s a recipe for financial failure.”